Thursday, July 9, 2009

The Intersection of Thoughts and Things

Do our cosmologies, our fundemental physics, our grandest philosophical/scientific ideas reflect the rarefied domains of mind and pure reason or do they live through the very real, very dirty process of living, embodied, in the world? The best answer to this question, at least for the most famous example of relativity theory, comes directly from Galison's book "Einstein's Clocks, Poincare's Map's". As Galison summarizes

When Einstein came to Bern patent office in 1902 he entered an institution in which the triumph of the electrical over the mechanical was already wired to reams of modernity. Here clock coordination was a practical problem (trains, troops, telegraphs) demanding workable, patentable solutions in exactly his area of greatest professional expertise: precision electromechanical instrumentation. The patent office was anything but the lonely deep-sea lightboat that the no-longer young Einstein had longed for as he spoke to the Albert Hall audience in the dark days of 1933. Reviewing one patent after another in the Bern Office, Einstein had a grandstand seat for the great march of modern technologies. And as coordinated clocks were paraded by they were not traveling alone. The network of electrical chrono-coordination provided political, cultural, and technical unity all at once. Einstein seized on this new, conventional, world-spanning simultaneity machine and installed it at the principled beginning of his new physics.

It was, in Galison's eyes, no accident that Einstein finds himself in the patent office which itself was no physics backwater. There was an intersection of thoughts and things, culture and creation, politics and philosophy swirling around the invention of relativity theory. As Galison says
Staring through the metaphorical we can find the literal, through the literal we can see the metaphorical.
I think this is not just true of the emergence of relativity but of all our grand discoveries. Our highest abstractions are woven through with the concrete of breath drawn upon breath and the clash of humans in the sweat and mire of daily life. This is the sacred as profane, the transformation of embodied life into distilled essence and back again. This is our wondrous gift in being human.


  1. That is a new insight for me, that Einstein's brilliant insights were so deeply rooted in his practical, everyday experiences as a patent examiner. It is sobering to be reminded how much our thinking is shaped by our environment.
    Your last paragraph beautifully elucidates the transcendant that emerges from the union of the mind with the concrete.
    To that I would add the importance of stimulus. We live in an action-response world where stimulus is the interface between the mind and the world. The variety, aptness and richness of the stimulii have a great effect on the functioning of the mind. When a great mind is placed in an apt and exceptionally stimulating environment we can expect that great things will happen.

  2. Adam,

    I agree, to be human, truly is a wondrous gift, and our ability to enter into the world through a scientific approach is certainly a huge part of our gift.

    I’m always suspicious of a spirituality that sees a world beyond our own as something better. I think such a world view stems from the cosmology that Plato based his ideas on; namely that our planet was in the shadows of a perfect world that exists on the other side of the sky. I’m not saying that an ideal doesn’t exist; I’m just saying that as it exists, it exists as a dimension, not a world.

    So in a new cosmology that is based on evolutionary dynamics, I would say that instead of the earth being an imperfect shadow, or something “fallen” from something perfect, I would say that the earth has become a place where the ideal can be realized, and it has taken the evolution of human being to finally be able to do this. You could say in a very literal way, that in human being, the eternal can be made manifest.

    We live in a world where we have the uniquely human power to see something that exists in a potential dimension, and make it actual in our world. I don’t know that we can make our exercising of this power easy even in “heaven”. We could probably make praxis less difficult, but it will always require expenditure on our part. Praxis, the manifesting a potential reality into actual reality, will always involve the “concrete of breath drawn upon breath and the clash of humans in the mire of daily life.” Indeed, this is our sacred power that’s been in the making for billions of years.

  3. Another aspect found in Einstein's discovery that I read somewhere, is that scientists couldn't bring themselves to accept the implications of Brown's and Maxwell's insights, including Brown and Maxwell: another significant element in Einstein's discovery then, is that he transcended a common "existential" barrier and accepted the implications, and went with them.

    When I look at the occurrence of human being in the context of astrobiology, I see something utterly amazing. If a physicist's head swims when considering the quantum world, mine swims when considering our ability to experience. To experience our experiencing is a phenomenon that is so different from the interaction described in terms of physics, whether they be classic or biological (in terms of instincts).

    I think that when we are wed to a strict Darwinian view of evolution, which perceives life's success on a basis of utility, we miss just how divergent human being is from the rest of the planet: where as a grizzely bear epitomizes utility- far more elegantly than human being- we epitomize the aesthetic.

    What are we to make then of this wild divergence from sole utility to the aesthetic potential intrinsic to human being? We keep looking to other animal species in order to better understand ourselves even though our world is driven more by the aesthetic than the utile.

    I'm wondering, is there something in Evolution that we are blind to- something that points our vision forward instead of backward?

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